HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – I received the text message from one coach wanting to assist another coach around 8 o’clock on Monday morning.
“Hey… wanted to let u know we might have a good story… our flag football team won the state title… our head coach’s contact is…”
That message from a coach at Newsome High School led me to a second coach at Newsome High School, the head coach of the flag football team and the offensive line coach for the tackle football team, Justin Shive.
I had been talking to Shive on the phone for less than 60 seconds when he told me, “The flag football team at Robinson High School also won a state championship in a different class.”
The expression on my face likely fell into the astonished category. I could hardly believe the support from coach to coach regardless of the school and regardless of the sport.
“It is the coaching community here,” explained Joshua Saunders, the head flag football coach at Robinson High School, “and the players are different than any sport that I have seen. They help each other out. I talk to Justin often about what is going on with his team and we have those conversations and, obviously, it is not just them.”
“There are passionate coaches, who want the sport to be what it is growing to be right now,” Shive added. “It is the fastest-growing female sport in the United States and being a part of that is huge because this is what this county has tried to develop.”
He specifically mentioned the dedication of Saunders and of Matt Hernandez at Alonso High School.
“They have worked super hard,” said Shive. “I’ve just tried to mimic how hard they work in my short period of time to give this sport the credit that it is due.”
Shive has accomplished that aspiration. Since he took over the flag football program at Newsome High School in 2019, his team has continued to climb. The Wolves have the records to prove it.
They finished the 2019 season with eight wins and five losses. In the 2020 season, which was cut short due to COVID-19, the team had five wins and one loss.
In 2021, the team finished with 19 wins and one loss and, deservedly, a Class 2A Flag Football State Championship.
“As a coach and coaching for so long… you dream of winning a state title. You never know when it is going to happen and, in the last couple of days, it has been unreal,” Shive said.
He said he has been overwhelmed with congratulatory messages and he has also heard from countless people, who told him they watched the game, their first flag football game, online on Saturday.
“It was a nail-biter, it was a nail-biter,” he said.
The Newsome Wolves defeated the Western Wildcats from Davie at Mandarin High School in Jacksonville by a score of 20-19.
“They are a very good program. We actually got out early on them,” Shive adding. “In the second half, they ended up taking the lead, 19-13, and we went down in the fourth quarter and ended up scoring to make the game 20-19 with two minutes left in the game.”
He had difficulty describing the celebration that followed that victory.
“It’s hard to even explain the pure emotion that you get to see on your athletes. They work so hard for that moment and everything came true for them, pure joy,” said Shive. “You could not ask for anything better to witness.”
He added he hopes that that moment will impact their memory of this pandemic.
“They have lost so much in this period of time,” Sive said. “Now, they can remember that May of 2021 was pretty good and that is something, with everything that is going on, that is huge.”
This championship is the first sate championship won by the Wolves flag football team, a program that has been in existence sine 2006.
“We fought until the very end and we did what we needed to do to get the win,” said Shive, “and that is what set us apart.”
The other state championship flag football team in Hillsborough County, the Robinson Knights, have set themselves apart too. The Knights had an undefeated season finishing with a 22-0 record and they won their fifth consecutive state championship, their six titles in the past seven years.
The Knights head coach summarized the success of the team.
“This team was so good,” said Saunders. “They literally only trailed for two minutes the entire season, over 22 games, so it was five total plays that they were actually losing in a game so they were very good. I would say, probably, I do not know if they were the best team we ever had but I would say they were the most dominate team compared to the people we played that we ever had.”
He stated both the semifinal game and the final game followed a similar pattern. The Knights had a 14-0 advantage after their first two offensive possessions in the first quarter.
“If you have a 14-point lead, you feel pretty good with where you are at,” he said. “It was good to not have to stress about the game too much after the first quarter.”
I asked Saunders about the celebration. I am still chuckling at his response.
“People expect it,” he said, “so it is half relief and half happiness.”
Thankfully, his players are not numb to those “expected” victories.
“I always worry that they, because they expect to win, I worry they will not enjoy it as much but this group was a little bit different, partially, probably, because they did not get to play last year,” said Saunders, “They didn’t get to have that opportunity last year so they were very excited.”
The excitement is tied to the success and, because this area has experienced a massive amount of it, these coaches are eager to help the other coaches reach it too.
“We are constantly bouncing ideas off of each other about what to do next,” said Saunders, “and I have never seen a coach in this area turn a coach down for anything they have asked for in terms of assistance or help or, ‘What do you think about this?’”
The support from coach to coach regardless of the school and regardless of the sport is special and Shive and Saunders are responsible for it.
“This past states week,” said Saunders, “we had two coaches come to practice from other teams because they wanted to see what we are doing and how we do things and they were certainly invited.”